Risking a Different Narrative

Judges 4:1-7 | Psalm 123 | 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 | Matthew 25:14-30

This Sunday is the only time in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary that we get to look at the book of Judges. This provides a great plug for Bible study, thanks in part to our prompting from the collect to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Holy Scripture. We’ll talk more about doing this in Christian Education after the 9:15, but let me point just a few things out for you, especially why I prompted you to read at least all of Chapter 4.

After Joshua died, Israel got a series of judges, of which 12 are presented in the namesake book. This is important because the Israelites don’t have a good track record when left to their own devices. (Even with judges, they’re not perfect.) The Israelites had a tendency to go along . . . and then pull a little like a car out of alignment, drifting out of line. They do wrong, anger God (expressed by oppression by enemies), then plea for repentance for which the LORD sends deliverers, or judges. This is a pretty predictable pattern that plays out time and again.

With Deborah, the fourth judge we’re given, we hear that the Israelites have displeased God. They’re being given over, sold to an enemy. Defeat is certain, what with the fancy iron-clad chariots and all. But Deborah, prophetess and judge, gives then an alternative, their hope for repentance and for getting back on the right road. She offers a teaser to their victory, that Sisera, the opposing military general, will fall at the hand of a woman.

Will it be Deborah? We’re mindful, of course, that Deborah may be judge and prophet, but she’s not the military commander; that’s Barak’s role, the one she’s directing. We could be left with the mystery, but I think it’s worthwhile to know that we get a more complicated, detailed story. There’s the basic pattern, but we have more (which is why I encouraged you to at least read all of Chapter 4).

Looking at what follows Deborah’s outrageous command, Barak basically says, “Deborah if you’re not going with me, I’m not going.” It sounds almost endearing, like President Obama saying he wouldn’t take the Oval Office without Michelle (like I’m sure he did!). Or like Moses not leading the people without Aaron to speak for him. Or like Jacob not letting go of the angel he wrestled with until he had the angel’s name. When we’re heading into battle, into stormy territory or rough water, we want to know we go with God’s assurance and blessing, especially when the prospects look grim.

So of course Deborah goes with him, and they’re victorious over the army, and they sing a song like Miriam did after they crossed the Red Sea (because we so often repeat our stories). But Sisera fled, commander as he was, and he hid in a tent where he happened to find the smith’s wife–the smith who had likely forged the iron for Sisera’s chariots. Surely at this tent, Sisera would be safe, Jael the wife providing him refuge. But she doesn’t. She gives him milk, not water (which would have indicated true hospitality–maybe like our coffee?), and when he sleeps, Jael drives a tent peg through his head–a graphic scene of violence (of which Judges has many) our lectionary opts to omit from our comfortable Sunday mornings.

Except maybe our Sunday mornings aren’t as comfortable anymore. There’s nothing that says our churches are a guaranteed, promised violence-free sanctuary. Another pattern has emerged. A headline appears. Multiple fatalities. Details about the town, the place, the victims, and the perpetrator. An investigation that lingers longer than our attention span, not bloody enough to lead the news anymore. We wring our hands and lament the loss of life, the senselessness of it all, hug our babies close and send them back to school, go back to work, go back to church, and lock our doors at night. All this in an effort to keep safe.

I spent three hours at a seminar on Thursday, a Safe Worship workshop aimed toward clergy to get us to see how or why our church might be vulnerable. They offered practical steps to keep ourselves safer, and at vestry this next week, we’ll talk about which things we’ll implement: some are simple, while others will require your help, too. We’ll keep you posted.

But I wonder what Deborah would say. When violent crimes at churches have increased about 870% from 2004-2017, where would she lead us? What would she tell us to do?

Let me offer one more insight I shared at the Continuing the Conversations on Wednesday. Tuesday night I attended a lecture at the UofA. Professor Carol Anderson, who teaches African American Studies at Emory University, shared with us the story of how in 2014 all the news stations were showing Ferguson on fire. All the anchors were saying that the African Americans were burning their home. She repeated this, as she heard it repeated over and over again. In the midst of this narrative, perpetuating that there’s something wrong with the black folk–obviously–because they’re destroying their home, she stopped.

Wait a minute. Folks don’t just burn up their homes.

She said that we were so focused or maybe even distracted by the flames that we forgot to look at the kindling that sent the flames sky-high. She talked about patterns of systemic oppressions, where profiling, incarceration, and voter suppression–thus lack of representation–were destroying the fabric of their society. Finally a match was struck, and the flames revealed the rage that was already in the offensive position. Only the narrative was focused on the reactive. And if we only ever respond to the reactive, does anything ever change? If we only get the homeless a hotel room every once in a while . . . or only treat those without insurance in the ER when they’re very sick . . . or only look at mental health or gun reform when people are gunned down . . . what will change?

When we’ve gotten off track, what do we do?

Deborah would say we’ve got to listen to and follow God.

Dr. Anderson would say we’ve got to wake up to the facts and imagine a different narrative than the one we’ve bought into.

And the Gospel? The Gospel tells us it’s complicated.

The Gospel is complicated because we want to think and believe that if we just listen to our master, our commander, the voice of justice, then we’ll be rewarded justly. But we’re given instructions, and then we’re left to our own devices. What do we do?

The parable today rewards those who took risks, and the one who thought he knew the master’s nature and did what was safe, was cast out. This surprises us because the master apparently isn’t the best of guys. But the servants are getting a lot of money–a bag of gold, 15 years’ wages, or $1.25 million are descriptions I’ve read of what a talent is. The third guy played it safe and didn’t do anything but hide his treasure. He had a choice. Barak had a choice. He could have disobeyed Deborah or tried to hide, but then as in Matthew, there’s an inevitable accountability to God. And we just don’t always know how it’s going to turn out. It’s complicated. We won’t always get it right, and we won’t always know how it’s going to end.

But a good combination of listening to God and taking risks for the sake and love of God, that’s worth our all. Stopping in our tracks to ask questions, standing at the brink of disaster and asking, “What’s going on here?”–that’s a hard and scare place to be . . . but so worth it. We know it’s worthwhile because we’re not the same person afterward. We have new knowledge about the world, our community, and ourselves. This knowledge fills our vision with awareness and clarity we didn’t have before, as if we’ve woken up to see another dimension. We see a way we can take all our talents and use them to make a difference in the world around us.

What we realize is that listening to God and taking risks transforms us into the people God needs us to be so that the world God imagined, redeemed by the Son, could be made manifest.

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Test of Faith

magchurchcrossI went to The Magnetic Church Conference because when I first read about it in our diocesan communication, it struck me as interesting, something important.  Our priests were willing to send me, and I ended up making the solo trip, the alone time not unwelcome.

The conference is about evangelism.  I’m Episcopalian.  The two E-words usually do not go together in casual conversation, not without a shudder, anyway.  The Episcopal Church is about welcoming, but we’re not so much into going out and collecting.  Apparently, we’re not great fishers.

But this is what the conference told us.  Re-think the way we view evangelism.  It’s not some salesman on t.v. with a bad comb-over, promising everything your heart desires if only you choose to live his path . . . and send him money.  For Christianity, our evangelism is in loving one another, “inviting people along the path and sharing the feast.”  It is best exemplified in radical hospitality and compassion.  And we went on to spend many hours talking about how a church might do this.  There were many laughs at our own and at our Church’s expense.

My personal test, however, lies within the principle of “inviting” others along the path.  I have an “all paths lead to God” kind of mentality, spirituality, whatever you want to call it.  What our speaker called “ecumenical mush” with apparent distaste, I don’t so much have a problem with.  Some people need more tradition than others, more frame work to make sense of the great Mystery.  I like the traditions, the liturgy, but I don’t have to have them.  It’s like having a beautifully illustrated book.  One doesn’t have to have the pictures.  Indeed, we don’t have to have a book at all.*  The Mystery exists whether we name it or not.  But it helps us, we mere humans, to work at this Mystery, to share what we have discovered on our way.  Each of us  — whether unchurched, lay, or ordained — has insights to the Truth of the Mystery.  Our lives are enriched in the sharing of these Truths.  Of course, we are human in our own right.  We only have one perspective in any given lifetime, and our understanding is thus limited.

My test?  Keeping my focus on what I feel is True.  I have to keep in mind that my view of God through the colored glass is different from others’, whether they be across the street or on the other side of the world.  My evangelism isn’t so much limited to the Episcopal religion as it is to the experience of the Divine.  I choose the Anglican Church as home for my spirit because it feeds me deeply and encourages my walk in faith, constantly providing nourishment for my journey.  But daily life is the test.  How do I embody Christ’s love to others.  How do I embody God to others?  How do I embody Spirit to others?  Is this not the cross that Christians bear?

Our free will tells us that we choose how we live our lives.  Sometimes, though, I feel more chosen than the chooser.  Truly, I don’t have to take up the cross.  For me, though, that’s like not smiling at a stranger, not comforting the crying child, not loving those in pain.  When you have a gift, it’s best enjoyed when shared.

Perhaps one of my greatest gifts is Love, and I choose to share that with you, no matter what you call it or how you experience it.  You choose whether or not to receive, but that doesn’t change the presence of the Love that is there, patient, kind, and never-ending.

*I’m not saying we don’t have to have the Bible.  I am saying that Christ lived and practiced what we call “Christianity” without a name, without a Bible.

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Religious / Spiritual

It was my pleasure to be at a weekend women’s retreat this past weekend, to go away to a mountainside campground, share a cabin with amazing women and experience the presence of Love.  Episcopal women really do have some great times, and I think it’s made even better by the depth of conversation.  We’re really not all that much into small talk.

The term “legalistic” has come into my consciousness these past couple of months, particularly in contrast to “spiritual.”  Why is this so?  What do I have to learn from this distinction?

According to Merriam-Webster, one who is legalistic is one who adheres to moral legalism,  “strict, literal, or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code.”  Whereas, one who is spiritual is one who is relating to, consisting of, or affecting the spirit.”  When I looked up the definition of “spirit,” I could not in good faith attribute any of them to my interpretation of Spirit.
seesaw.jpg
When I think of someone who is religious, perhaps it is because their seeming focus tends to be more heavily on the legalistic side of the see-saw.  I believe, however, that a “strict conformity” to anything has a tendency to build a box, to close some in and to keep others out.  I know few who are truly legalistic.  Most on this side are religious, manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity . . . or devoted to religious beliefs or observances.”  This person probably knows creeds and
scripture by heart, can recite what they believe at a moment’s notice,
without hesitation.  Ah, how I admire that knowledge, that assuredness.


When I think of someone who is spiritual, I think of my experience with them, how freely the energy, the Spirit, flows between them and me.  Their very life seems to be caught up in Spirit, ever-present in all they do.  But there can be haze; it is ever-changing.  As with Merriam-Webster, the person experiencing Spirit has a hard time describing what exactly It is but knows without a doubt what the response is to it, whether it be laughter or tears, joy or uncertainty.  Indeed, it compels us forward in all we do.

Of course, I tend to find myself more spiritually inclined.  My see-saw has plunked to the ground on the spiritual side and sits there, perhaps at times stuck in the mud.  Would it be ideal to get a good balance going, to hover in the air as the scales are balanced, enjoying it as if laughing with a friend, knowing that there’s really nothing to do on the stuck see-saw except someone get off, hopefully gently?  Is it better to go back and forth, appreciating the other’s strength and weight, watching closely to technique lest you miss something that might enrich your own experience?

As with everything, we have to be aware.  We have to be open to each other.  We have to learn and grow.  At our core, we are all spiritual beings.  Sometimes we need beliefs to help explain ourselves, but all the time, we need to live with and through the Spirit, the Love. 

Skip the small talk.

(photo by *Claudine from everystockphoto.com)

 

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My First Homily

(Homily I offered on Sunday, April 26th, 2009, at the Time for JOY retreat, Camp Mitchell.  The theme of the weekend was “Birthing the Woman Within.”  I’m sorry that I can’t invoke the waves of emotion, the movement of Spirit here that was present at the mountain chapel.  Thanks be to all.)

I love that Time for JOY is during the Easter season.  Now is a time when we are still new in the remembered contemplation and sacrifice of Christ; our alleluias are still fresh.

This JOY weekend, I’ve talked mostly about the Yourself of J.O.Y.  For the full JOY, we also need Jesus and Others.  In our daily lives, we are pretty well-trained.  We’re good girls when it comes to helping out when needed . . . as long as it’s for someone else.  We focus so much on You here at JOY because you are more likely to neglect yourself than others, but you have to remember that the better cared-for you are, the better the quality of service you provide.

And Jesus?  Well, if we’re not likely to care for ourselves, how much more likely are we to spend precious time on someone who doesn’t seem to play an active role in daily life?

Therein lies the rub.

We are sisters in Christ.  We are daughters of God.  There’s a suffering Jesus endured for us to show us true peace.  There’s the spark within us that is also of God, of Christ.  Our seed of potential and purpose is none other than that which exists in Jesus, of God.  The potential remains in each of us to live fully as a child of God, but how willing are we to step forth and call God ours?  How willing are we to see the risen Christ in each other?  How willing are we to believe in miracles?   Would we have been any less disbelieving and wondering in the presence of the resurrected Lord?

The woman you’ve been coaxing out of hiding is “the deep root of your being,” your inner Jesus, the one willing to claim God, the one that is Whole, the One.  In our human form, our best is to love others as we love ourselves, but only if we know who we really are.  Given a purpose to Love, we are also given talents and gifts with which to do this.  There are ways our seemingly trivial work creates more positive energy in the Universe, thus creating more love.  Don’t ask me to explain it because I don’t understand it, but it works.  So what brings us joy is important.  We have our thread in the beautiful cosmic tapestry.  To know ourselves is crucial, tantamount to Love.  When we know, feel and trust the love of God within, then truthfully we can witness to others as we extend the blessing of Christ that “peace be with you.”  It’s not solely about the fact that Jesus died.  I tell my kids Jesus is in their heart.  He’s in mine and yours, too.  It’s about life — living and loving.

Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori reminds us of our responsibility.  “We’re meant to be heralds of resurrecion to a world that still thinks death is the last word.”

Birth is an everyday miracle.  I believe in miracles. 

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